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September 2022

Debunking Activated Charcoal Claims

Activated charcoal has long been used to trap drugs and other chemicals to stop the effects of poisoning. But it’s increasingly promoted for other uses, particularly celiac disease and hangover. What should you tell patients? Is there any evidence it can help?

Many of the claims that activated charcoal helps with celiac disease suggest that it can bind to gluten in the gut, similar to its action with toxins and poisons. But there isn’t any evidence that activated charcoal binds with gluten. And the weight of gluten protein actually exceeds the maximum weight that can be adsorbed by activated charcoal. Despite this, a recent survey of 1600 people with celiac disease found that 26% had heard of this claim, and almost half of those who had heard of it had given activated charcoal a try. If patients ask you about this, tell them that there isn’t any evidence that it works for acute gluten ingestion.

Similarly, there’s some buzz around using activated charcoal pills to treat hangovers. As with gluten, the claim is that it can bind with alcohol in the stomach. But alcohol doesn’t bind well to charcoal - drinking alcohol can actually reduce the binding action of activated charcoal.

In general, many of the trending uses for activated charcoal aren’t backed by any scientific evidence. And it’s not necessarily safe for everyone. As a general rule, activated charcoal should be completely avoided by people who take regular medications as it can reduce the absorption of many drugs. Check out our recently updated monograph to learn more about potential drug interactions and what the evidence says about its other uses.

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